Sermon for Epiphany III, 2023, Random Lake 1/22/23
Theme: FREE TO BE UNITED
Text: 1 Corinthians 1: 10-18; Isaiah: 9:1-4; Matthew 4: 12-23, Psalm 97: 1, 4-9
Introduction In our fast-changing world, It’s possible to struggle with our humanity. We may feel like prisoners of genetics, vulnerable to pollution and the hidden poisons that flow in our air and water. Like persons caught in a horror movie, we’re not sure who are our enemies, much less how to fight them. So, we crave the faith of the writer of Psalm 27, who says: “Even now my head is lifted up above my enemies who surround me.”
Past mistakes weigh heavy upon us, and we drag unseen chains of un-acknowledged sin, like Marley in The Christmas Carol. As we plunge more deeply into the new year, we may be disturbed by news of corruption and political discord. We know government decisions will affect us, but we feel severely limited in what we can do about the whole flawed system.
It’s hard enough just trying to keep our personal lives in balance. We try to find time and energy to lead healthy lives. In our worst moments, we feel suffocated and defeated, yearning to breathe free.
Fortunately, Jesus strides into our lives in worship this week and says, “Follow me.” Jesus, our living Lord, is the only truly free person who ever lived. Though he suffered the worst of the world’s attempts to bind him, Jesus exercised perfect freedom in following the divine plan to free us all.
He could not be confined by the processes of nature, nor by false cultural expectations. Corrupt government and false religion could not take away his authentic humanity. Even death could not bind him. In the cross and resurrection, Jesus lives to set us free. He comes to our town, our home, our workplace, and certainly our worship to claim us for himself. He says, “Follow me.”
But once claimed as his own, you and I discover that we are not alone. The path we walk with Jesus is crowded with fellow believers. Some of them gather here at St. Paul’s, and some at other churches. We gather for Christian growth, fellowship and service. We march in a long line of believers.
In our best moments, we come with joy and dedication to the Lord who broke the power of evil, the forces that keep grabbing us from the darker side of life. We walk together, strengthened by God’s Word and Sacrament, to proclaim and live out the good news. The strange message—what the world calls foolishness—the Apostle writes. “to us who are being saved… is the power of God.”
The strange and glorious message of the life of Jesus gives us a mission–an eternal purpose. Freed from fear and death, pumped up by God’s Holy Spirit, we strive to “be united in the same mind and the same purpose,” as the Apostle invited the Church long ago. I pray that we will always see ourselves as FREE TO BE UNITED.
I Paul lived in a church of flesh and blood human beings. As is the case today, worshippers exhibited different levels of understanding and commitments. There were honest disagreements, various opinions and perspectives on this or that practice. Jesus did not choose to carve in stone a detailed list of protocols and procedures for all time.
For the Lord sent his people on an ever-changing mission through the centuries. You recall Jesus’ last words recorded in Matthew’s Gospel:
All authority in heaven and earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age. 28:19-20
Like the church in every age, the church at Corinth sometimes forgot their unity in Christ. They forgot their mission. Paul is writing sometime after the exciting start of the congregation. He learned from Chloe’s people that there were childish quarrels going on. Paul’s brothers and sisters in Christ had chosen up sides and were shouting like children in a playground: “I belong to Paul,” I belong to Apollos,” or “I belong to Cephas,” [another name for Peter] or “I belong to Christ. “I…I…I” –that was the mistaken cry.
Paul reminded them that they were all united in the one Christ, who called them in sovereign grace to love one another. He invited them to focus on the cross, the good news that had power to save, to free individuals from slavery to self or to a political party. The power of God was evident, when people were working things out, united in a mission of love and outreach to the fallen world.
II The power of love is strong in this congregation when we see Jesus, at the center of all we do together. And by God’s grace, we see and do a lot.
St. Paul’s is visible in the community through serving food or selling cookies. The quilters have offered warmth and beauty in cold climates, not only locally but also for refugees and people far away. We welcome new people; offer Sunday school; provide a place for special services on festival days, weddings, and funerals. We offer Bible studies, confirmation classes, and recreation at times during the week. Most of all, we blend our talents and time in worship with music, where the Lord comes among us in sacramental power.
Of course we are imperfect. Though we are forgiven, we are still sinners. The grip of pride can yank at our hearts and minds. The deadly sins of apathy and anger may lurk in the human heart. We try to help one another to overcome sins with God’s Word of correction and good news. And we do!
III The truth is that our Lord Jesus keeps freeing us to be united. He searches us out in our private places. He enters our cozy isolation and whispers, “Follow me.” In times when we feel overlooked or unheard, Jesus says, “Follow me.” When some are hanging on to past feelings or separating themselves from our joint mission, the Lord invites: “Come back into the gathering of the whole.” We have one mission—to follow the freeing Christ back into community, with all of it’s complexity. Comfortable or not, we work together.
What else can we do? As Peter once asked, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.” Do we really want to follow some popular guru or our own mortal wisdom? Is there any other path to eternal life with God and the deep peace we seek? I know no other road to lasting glory.
IV No one ever came with such dramatic power. Peter and Andrew were preoccupied with their work, stuck in their well-dug ruts, when Jesus took the initiative. Like the Lord who surprised Moses and Jeremiah, Jesus laid claim upon these ordinary humans. He confiscated their hearts. There is no evidence of their great qualifications, their self-preparation, some mood-making set-up. Jesus of Nazareth called them in sovereign grace, and James and John responded. They left their father and the family business. They left everything behind and stumbled forward on the way with Jesus, because the light of the new creation shown in their hearts, and they were free.
Conclusion Are you free to follow Christ? Do you hear the gracious invitation to leave behind past mistakes, hurts, and self-centered living? Jesus doesn’t want isolated Christians or lonely strangers. He wants us united with one another.
We may not like those smelling of fish or tax collectors of questionable reputation, but they are loved by God and are with us on the freedom road. We may disagree with others or think them unworthy of their place, but we live in unity, because Jesus has called us. He has come among us in water and Word, bread and wine. He promises to be with us and actually help us to accomplish something really worthwhile that will last beyond the present chaos.
Follow Christ. Embrace and build community. Proclaim the gospel, not of success, but of the cross. And you will grow in understanding of what it means to be FREE TO BE UNITED.